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A 99-yard drive by the Washington Redskins in this season's opener began to change all that. It helped convince coach Jimmy Johnson and his defensive assistants that Robert Jones, who had had a creditable season as a rookie middle linebacker in '92, wasn't the answer. Norton would step into the meat grinder inside, and his place would be taken by a University of Miami rookie named Darrin Smith.
"People said I was sacrificing a Pro Bowl shot by moving into a new position," Norton says, "but if you want to be considered the leader of the defense, you should play in the middle."
The week before the Giant game Norton tore the biceps in his right arm against the Eagles—and never left the game. Johnson, later commenting on Norton's condition, said, "He tore the biceps muscle from the bone. I felt it on the plane home, and I could feel a hole in there.... There is some pain, but Ken won't have any problem functioning as a tackier."
Which shows that coaches have a very high threshold—for other people's pain.
An MRI showed a tear in "mid-substance" of the tendon, but it was not torn away from the bone. Norton had a choice: either to have the arm surgically repaired and miss the season or to tough it out and probably lengthen—and complicate—his postseason rehab time. He chose the latter, was on the field when the Giants lined up for their first snap and was part of the mob that swarmed Dave Meggett when he was stopped for no gain on third-and-one two plays later.
Meanwhile, with the line giving him all the time he needed, Aikman connected on his first 10 passes, throwing underneath the two-deep zone or going deep. By halftime Smith had 60 of his 117 yards rushing. The Cowboys ate up more than half of the opening quarter on their first possession, which produced a field goal. Their next possession ended with a 28-yard touchdown pass from Aikman to wideout Alvin Harper. By the time the first quarter ended, the Cowboys had all the points they needed (10), but just for good measure they added seven more on their first play of the second quarter—a 50-yard pass to Harper, with Aikman standing back there forever, surveying the unfolding patterns.
It was gorgeous football for Cowboy fans, a bit of everything, even a 46-yard Harper-to-Michael Irvin option pass off a reverse in the fourth quarter. "I tried not to laugh when that was called in the huddle," said left guard Nate Newton, the leader of an offensive line that must surely rate as the best in the league. "We'd tried it six times in practice. Six quackers—three intercepted, two incomplete, one caught out of bounds. But today was one of those days when everything worked."
On defense the Cowboys attacked the Giant running game with speed, luring New York backs into gaps that looked enticing but closed in a hurry, and pursuing hard from the backside. Maybe the old Philly defenses that smashed people in the mouth and stuffed them at the point of attack would sneer at such tactics, but on Sunday they were effective. The Giants rushed for 118 yards, 42 of them in the last quarter after the score was 31-6.
The big difference in the two teams, though, was that Aikman had protection, and Giant quarterback Phil Simms (and later Kent Graham) did not. "The thing about the Cowboys' defense," Simms said last Saturday, "is that you never get a cheap play. They make you work every drive."
And in order to work you've got to have time, and Simms was under constant pressure. He banged up his elbow in the first half, took another hard shot in the second and finally gave way to Graham in the fourth quarter. Protection had also been a problem in the Giants' 10-6 loss to the Jets the week before. Left tackle Jumbo Elliott suffered a pinched nerve in his neck earlier in the season, making him vulnerable to the power rush. The injury still bothered him Sunday, and replacing him in the second half with Eric Moore, who had hardly played all year, didn't help any.